By Bill Hicks

Sam PeterGoogle's Sam PeterMore evidence of Google’s  advances into the UK education system came today as three high-profile academic institutions went public with their reasons for opting for the search giant’s version of 'cloud computing' – that is, the Google Apps EDU package, providing email plus collaborative applications including document sharing, calendars and site-building.

Speaking at Google’s London HQ, managers from the University of Westminster, London University’s School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS), and the Royal College of Art (RCA) each cited similar motives for ditching their in-house email systems and plugging into Google’s  cloud model.

In all cases, the change was spurred on as much by popular demand from the students as by cost factors (Google Apps EDU is free) and the 7.3Gb mailbox per user quota.

“Basically, our old email system sucked,” said Malcolm Raggett of SOAS. “Two thirds of students were redirecting email to their personal accounts. Then our suppliers pulled the plug, we were getting no support and had to change.” A survey of the options – open source, Microsoft Exchange, and Google  – rapidly established the latter as  favourite, and not simply because Google Apps EDU is free Speed of implementation was also crucial. (The Microsoft option, he said, would have cost £600,000 to £700,000 and would have taken three years to implement, whereas the Google option cost one salary and the first implementation - email - took six months.)

With big issues of reliability and security to consider, Raggett was “initially sceptical”. “We had some worries, but these were addressed – the executive board took up my recommendation and we went live with email and calendars in mid-2008, adding docs in January.”

SOAS hasn’t yet implemented the site-building option – given the school’s reputation for objectivity in research into  Middle Eastern political issues, it could not risk “rogue sites” appearing  on the domain.

'We asked the students what they wanted, and they wanted Google'

At the University of Westminster, an even higher proportion – 96 per cent – of its 22,000 students were giving up on the old in-house email, said its director of information systems, Roger James. It got to the point where the student union started a “fit for purpose” campaign for change.

“We asked the students what they wanted, and they wanted Google,” he said. James saw the switch as a great opportunity to “narrow the divide” between the existing, cumbersome institutional IT systems and the agile technology that the Facebook-generation took for granted in their  normal lives.

“The students know what they want – around 3-4,000 have their own sites. Now we want to use Google Apps, to use that creativity, to harness their ideas,” he said.

At the RCA, Jonathan Warner introduced Google Apps almost by stealth after a server crash knocked out the existing system for a month: “I started with the students,” he said. “We just got on with it. It took one month to implement and three months to migrate the old mail.”

“Our students are adults, and how they choose to share work and ideas, create online seminars and galleries is up to them – they use a range of social networking sites. But with Google we’ve provided a framework, a network where they can access many of the RCA’s alumni, on a known domain.”

So what’s in this for Google? The company turned its attention to education two years ago, starting in the US but swiftly and inevitably going global. According to Sam Peter, Google’s  manager for education initiatives, UK, “ there are now 2.5 million active  users of the system worldwide” – though she wouldn’t say how many universities in total had signed up.

Early adopters in the UK were Leeds Metropolitan, SOAS and the University of Glamorgan (the latter, she said, had set up its contract on the basis of a single email). Increasingly, schools were also switching to Google: “Any school or college can adopt our package, simply by going online,” she said. “We don’t have a huge sales force.”

The Google Apps EDU contracts run for four years – which seemed to be more than enough security for the participants at this event, even though some are promoting the switch to students as “an email address for life”. In fact, all agreed that another attractive feature of Google was that, if it came to it , they could easily part company and jump on to someone else’s cloud.

More information

For more information on Google Apps Education Edition, see:

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